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The Dry Garden: Fans of native plants have reason to cheer at Nopalito nursery

January 7, 2011 |  8:00 am

Emily-Nopalito-crassula
The potential for gardeners here to conserve water while glorying in the California experience is as big as the state. Yet most of us don't seize it. According to local water managers, the problem is "capacity."

By capacity, they refer to the ability of chain home improvement stores to stock drought-tolerant native and Mediterranean-climate plants alongside water-hungry turf. Building native-plant capacity in big-box stores is tough. The inventory get watered to death by untrained staff, who don't know what the plants are much less what they need. So "capacity" tends to be code for "forget about it" when the subject of water conservation comes up.

Emily-Nopalito-wide Well, water managers, reality check. Nursery capacity for native plants is increasing, albeit slowly. A network of independent specialist nurseries is emerging. Most of these not only have trained staff to sell native plants but also offer courses on how to design gardens and how to tend those new Edens.

To see a fine example, glance west of the 101 freeway near the Telephone Road exit in Ventura County. There you'll see the year-old Nopalito Native Plant Nursery, above right.

Emily-Nopalito-SanchezesIts owners, cousins Richard Sanchez, left, and Antonio Sanchez, right, joke that the idea for Nopalito came when they "got drunk one night and thought, 'What's the least profitable business we can get into?' "

Yet slightly more than a year after opening during the darkest days of a national recession, Nopalito is still there. The reason is the Sanchezes' cocktail of energy, vision and experience.

After studying sustainable agriculture at Santa Rosa Junior College, Antonio worked for the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley. He emerged conversant with the habits and needs of dozens of cultivars of the region's best loved plants.

Emily-Nopalito-wreath-detail

Emily-Nopalito-sign-ceanothus All the specimens at Nopalito are set out on handsome raised tables. Richard, who built the tables, understands real-world retailing. He quit a management position at Trader Joe's to go in on the nursery, where he now runs succulent clinics. Nopalito's succulents rival Trader Joe's flowers for beauty, artistry and price. The nursery also sells organic salad greens and culinary herbs.

Like predecessors Theodore Payne, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont and Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano, the Nopalito team realized that they needed to do more than sell plants. They would have to teach gardeners how to grow them. To this end, Nopalito has launched a lecture series. The good and great of California horticulture have been out pulling for them. Speakers have included Theodore Payne's Lili Singer and Rancho Santa Ana's Bart O'Brien.

This year, the lineup is every bit as good. On Jan. 22, Rancho Santa Ana fellow Barbara Eisenstein will lead a course in gardening with native bunchgrasses. The following month, Nopalito will host Owen Dell, author of the anything-but-dumb "Sustainable Gardening for Dummies."

When going to Nopalito, give yourself time to browse. About 600 varieties include not just natives but also Australian, South American and Mediterranean plants. The prices are keen. The only problem is that the owners love to tease each other and customers, so don't think that they mean it when they suggest poison ivy for a children's garden.

Emiily-Tree-of-Life-sun Knowledgeable native plant retailers besides Theodore Payne and Tree of Life, pictured at right, include Matilija Nursery in Moorpark and Grow Native nurseries in Claremont and Westwood. 

Among conventional nurseries, Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar and Marina del Rey Garden Center near Venice stock native plants. Poke around and there may be goodies such as California fuchsia to be found at Bellefontaine Nursery in Pasadena.

For those in search of low-water gardening courses, the January schedule includes Singer's Thursday Garden Talks at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. Next week, Susan Van Atta will be leading a course in native flower gardening. Singer's lineup at the Theodore Payne Foundation has a January calendar chock-a-block with lessons on design, maintenance and horticulture.

Saturday marks the beginning of Tree of Life Nursery's latest four-part series on replacing your lawn.

Ellen Mackey, staff ecologist for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, will describe the dry garden maintenance program developed for the Elmer Avenue Project at the Tuesday meeting of the Los Angeles and Santa Monica Mountain chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable gardening appears here every Friday. Also look for our Datebook listings of classes and events, posted every Monday, and our dispatches on the people and plantings in community gardens, posted every Wednesday. Follow all the garden headlines by joining us on Facebook.

Photo credit: Emily Green / For The Times

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